Covid Scotland: PCR testing for travellers reduces risk of new variants, say experts

PCR testing for international travellers is vital for the tracking of new variants, experts have said after the Scottish Government announced it would not follow England in relaxing this measure.

But airports and airlines hit out at the decision, with the owners of Glasgow and Aberdeen airports labelling the discrepancy the “worst of both worlds”.

From October 4 vaccinated travellers will no longer have to take a pre-departure test before returning to England, and will be able to replace the PCR test required on day two of their return with a cheaper lateral flow test.

The Scottish Government has said it will not follow these new measures, “due to significant concerns at the impact on public health”.

Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of Global Public Health and director of the Global Health Governance Programme at the University of Edinburgh, and member of the Scottish Government Covid-19 Advisory Group.

However, other changes will come into effect in both Scotland and England. From October 4, the green and amber travel lists will merge, while the red list remains.

Eight countries – Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Oman, Bangladesh, Kenya and the Maldives – will be removed from the red list at 4am on Wednesday.

And vaccinations that took place in 17 countries including Canada, Australia, Israel and New Zealand will now be recognised alongside those given in the UK, EU and USA.

Professor Devi Sridhar, a professor of global public health at Edinburgh University, backed the Scottish Government’s continuation of PCR testing, saying it will allow surveillance of new variants.

"Letting go of PCR testing is letting go of one of the main ways we would identify new variants, and be able to even know if it was coming in, if it was being seeded,” she told BBC Good Morning Scotland on Saturday.

“And secondly, to be able to catch positive cases that we have tried to control and keep the numbers as low as we can and the pressure off the NHS.”

Prof Sridhar added that a new variant is one of the “main things” she is concerned about going into winter.

Lawrence Young, Professor of Molecular Oncology at Warwick University, said the UK Government’s decision may risk bringing a new variant into the country.

“The main concern is what this means for virus genomic sequencing,” he said.

"How will we ensure that those who test positive on a lateral flow test isolate and take a PCR test? It is likely that this approach will reduce our ability to efficiently monitor the introduction of new variants into the country.

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"We know that fully vaccinated individuals can get infected and spread the virus. We also know that previous waves of infection have been fuelled by returning travellers.

"Letting our guard down runs the risk of bringing a new variant into the country, such as the mu variant first identified in Colombia, which could reduce the effectiveness of current vaccines.”

Dr Simon Clarke, Associate Professor in Cellular Microbiology at Reading University, said the rule changes “will inevitably increase the risk of bringing in more infections from abroad”.

AGS Airports Ltd, which operates Aberdeen and Glasgow airports, called on the Scottish Government to change its approach, which they labelled the “worst of both worlds”.

A spokesperson said: “It won’t protect public health as Scottish passengers will now simply fly from English airports, and it inflicts further damage on our aviation and tourism industry which has been on the brink for the past 18 months.”

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